Drone success in expedition measuring Southern right whales

August 29, 2016, University of Otago
Drone success in expedition measuring Southern right whales
15.0m mother and calf right whale photographed from the drone. Credit: S. Dawson, taken under permit from Department of Conservation

The University of Otago's RV Polaris II returned to Otago last week having completed an extraordinarily successful expedition to the subantarctic Auckland Islands. "Our focus was on documenting the status of the right whales which breed in Port Ross," says expedition leader Professor Steve Dawson.

In addition to photographic surveys of the from small boats, the expedition used a drone – a small four-rotor helicopter equipped with a high-resolution camera – to document the condition of individual whales.

"We fitted our drone with a tiny laser range finder to measure altitude with a high degree of precision. Because of this we can measure the size and shape of photographed from above. This helps us understand the population at the Auckland Islands, and is crucial for figuring out why some right whale populations (such as ours) are recovering strongly, while others, such as the North Atlantic right whale, are not," says Professor Dawson.

The pictures were taken while the drone hovered 25-35m above the whales and the whales did not seem to react," says Professor Dawson. "I don't think they knew the drone was there which means this technology provides a powerful non-invasive tool to assess the condition of individual whales.

Despite the Auckland Islands being famously windy, the expedition was blessed with light winds and calm seas. "In three weeks on site, we were able to fly our a total of 136 flights on 12 days – far more than we expected. We gained measurement quality images of over 100 different individuals – about a third of the whales present. That's a great sample, but we're most excited about getting measurement images of over 50 mothers and calves because these are the ones driving the population's recovery," he says.

The expedition was funded by the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI), which is committed to supporting cutting-edge research that contributes to better understanding of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. NZARI Director Professor Gary Wilson comments, "This is a great example of the kind of research NZARI supports – using new technology to learn more about how our southern ecosystems function and how we might use that to understand future changes."

Explore further: Drone technology aids whale research off Hawaii

Related Stories

Drone technology aids whale research off Hawaii

July 29, 2016

Federal researchers returning from a 30-day expedition to study whales and dolphins around the Hawaiian Islands said Thursday they are looking for clues to help sustain healthy populations of the marine mammals.

NOAA: Drone technology aids whale research off Hawaii

July 29, 2016

Federal researchers returning from a 30-day expedition to study whales and dolphins around the Hawaiian Islands said they are looking for clues to help sustain healthy populations of the marine mammals.

Recommended for you

The source of stem cells points to two proteins

December 11, 2018

Mammalian embryos are unlike those of any other organism as they must grow within the mother's body. While other animal embryos grow outside the mother, their embryonic cells can get right to work accepting assignments, such ...

'Pest-controlling' bats could help save rainforests

December 11, 2018

A new study shows that several species of bats are giving Madagascar's rice farmers a vital pest control service by feasting on plagues of insects. And this, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge believes, can ease the ...

The food poisoning find that could save lives

December 11, 2018

Researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) have made a discovery that has the potential to save lives when treating bacterial infections, especially serious food poisoning.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.